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UK gov must act now to regulate Facebook, says whistleblower

Frances Haugen told members of the Online Safety Bill committee that the social network "is closing the door on us being able to act”

The UK government must act now to regulate Facebook, whistleblower Frances Haugen told MPs on Monday.

The data engineer and scientist, who worked for Facebook for two years prior to sounding the alarm about the tech giant’s practices, testified before the Online Safety Bill committee on Monday about the dangers created by the social media platform.

Haugen warned MPs that “Facebook is closing the door on us being able to act”.

“We have a slight window of time to regain people[‘s] control over AI,” she told members of the committee, who are working on new legislation that could see social media companies fined up to 10% of their annual turnover, or £18 million, for failing to quash online abuse.

Haugen said that work on the Online Safety Bill ​​has been largely ignored by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, yet the legislation could have the potential to set a precedent for other countries. 

"The UK has a tradition of leading policy in ways that are followed around the world,” she told Parliament, adding that she was  "incredibly proud of the UK for taking such a world-leading stance".

Haugen told MPs that, due to shortages of moderators, Facebook had been unable to police harmful content in multiple languages around the world, leading to civil unrest in Ethiopia and Myanmar. However, the issue also impacts the UK, she added, due to Facebook’s AI’s inability to detect online abuse in British English.

"UK English is sufficiently different that I would be unsurprised if the safety systems that they developed primarily for American English were actually under-enforcing in the UK,” she told the committee. 

The hearing comes days after Facebook claimed that its AI managed to reduce the prevalence of hate speech by 50%.

Haugen also hit back at claims made by the Telegraph on her stance on end-to-end encryption (e2ee), saying that she had been ‘misrepresented’ by the publication.

She said that, contrary to the Telegraph’s report published on Sunday, she fully supports “e2e open source encryption software”, using it herself on a daily basis.

“I want to be very, very clear. I was mischaracterised in the Telegraph yesterday on my opinions around end-to-end encryption,” Haugen told MPs, adding that she is “a strong supporter of access to open source end-to-end encryption software”.

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“Part of why I am such an advocate for open source software, in this case, is that if you’re an activist, if you’re someone who has a sensitive need, a journalist, a whistleblower — my primary form of social software is an open source, end-to-end encryption chat platform,” she said.

However, Haugen said she was sceptical about the legitimacy of Facebook’s e2ee.

In August, Facebook added the option of e2ee for voice and video calls on its Messenger communications platform, defying warnings from the UK government about the technology’s risk to children’s safety. Weeks later, it also extended e2ee to WhatsApp backups.

Despite the negative attention and increased scrutiny from US and UK officials, Facebook managed to generate a profit of $9.2 billion (£6.67 billion) during the third quarter, according to financial earnings results published on Monday.

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